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The Power of One

The Power of one is a novel by Bryce Courtenay, first published in 1989. Set in South Africa during the 1930s and 1940s, it tells the story of an English boy who, through the course of the story, acquires the nickname of Peekay. (In the movie, the protagonist's given name is Peter Phillip Kenneth Keith, but that is not mentioned in the book.)

It is written from the first person perspective, with Peekay narrating (as an adult, looking back) and trusting the reader with his thoughts and feelings, as opposed to a detailed description of places and account of actions.

Plot summary

After his mother has a severe psycho breakdown, Peekay is sent to boarding school. Being the only English speaker in the largely Afrikaner school, Peekay soon becomes the target of the other boys, they say he is a traitor and when the Nazis come Hitler will get him, because he is a "Rooinek" and that is unacceptable, in their eyes.

He is bullied and teased by everyone at the school, but most of all by older boys, led by "The judge". An avid supporter of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, The Judge frequently expresses the opinion that Hitler will soon arrive to drive the rooineks (literally "rednecks", Afrikaans slang for the British) into the sea. Peekay receives no help from the matron of the boarding school, Mevrou, (Afrikaans: Madam), who beats him with her sjambok every morning after she finds that he has wet his bed. In one incident, Peekay is urinated on by "The Judge" and the other students, earning the name "Pisskop" (pisshead in Afrikaans). He is able to outgrow this cruel nickname once he leaves the torturous confines of the boarding school. Peekay is the nickname his mother called his father who shared his name.

His Zulu nanny arranges for an African medicine man, Inkosi Inkosikazi, to come and cure Peekay of his bedwetting. Inkosi Inkosikazi helps Peekay to conquer his fears by leading him into the dreamworld. He also shows Peekay a piece of "magic" (which is revealed to be a simple trick) involving chickens, where the chicken remains sitting and docile within a circle drawn in the dust. Peekay is given a kaffir (ethnic slur for the native Africans) chicken, which he names Grandpa Chook.

At the end of the year, The Judge rounds up Peekay and Grandpa Chook one last time and attempts to make him eat human excrement. Peekay is shocked into inaction by the demand and does not respond fast enough for the Judge. The Judge responds by smashing the excrement into Peekay's face, and then looking up to yell "Heil Hitler." From the jacaranda tree, in the branches above them, Grandpa Chook chooses that moment to drop a "perfect bomb of green and white chicken shit, straight into the Judge's open mouth." Out of his anger at what occurs, the Judge uses a catapult (or slingshot) to launch a stone into Grandpa Chook, breaking his ribcage, resulting in his death.

Traumatized from this experience, Peekay learns to be back in the arms of his beloved Zulu nanny. However, Mevrou informs him that he will not be returning to the farm, rather, he will be going to the East Transvaal town of Barberton, where his grandfather lives after the outbreak of Newcastle disease on his previous home.

On the train to Barberton, Peekay is chaperoned by Hoppie Groenewald, the boxing champion of the South African railways. Hoppie shows Peekay his boxing gloves and instills him with his own personal love of boxing. He also invites Peekay to come and watch him box Jackhammer Smit, a tremendously large light heavyweight miner, in Gravelotte, a town on the way to Barberton.

Hoppie emerges victorious, and teaches Peekay a maxim that will stay with him forever:"First with the head, then with the heart."

After the fight with his mother regarding his nanny, Peekay runs into the veld, where he meets a German professor of music and amateur botanist Karl von Vollensteen, who introduces himself as Doc, and takes a photograph of Peekay. The two soon become good friends, and, with Peekay's mother's permission, Doc begins to teach the young boy both piano and botany. Instead of monetary payment, Peekay pays for his lessons by helping Doc gather cacti in the surrounding hills.

Both Doc and Peekay become friends with Barberton's librarian, Mrs. Boxall.

However, just as World War II begins, Doc is arrested for failing to register as an enemy alien in wartime. However, when the arresting officer comes into Doc's house, and pours whisky onto the keys of Doc's Steinway, Doc raps him on the knuckles with a rod and walks out of the house. Doc is forced to the ground and the guard, trying to take revenge, tries to kick him in the head, but Peekay jumps in between the two in an attempt to save Doc. The soldier breaks Peekay's jaw, which needs to be wired.

During the first week of Peekay's stay at the hospital, he is considered a hero for discovering the "German Spy". The officer made up a story and the newspaper editor of the town ate it up and ran a front page Special Edition story about how Doc was really a Nazi spy and that he was trying to escape when Peekay tackled him. In the hospital Peekay writes up an account of the whole incident, with all the minute details just like Doc taught him to include in everything he did. He gives it to Mrs. Boxall, who arranges a meeting with the judge in charge of the case who in the end dismisses the claims against Doc, but Doc is still charged with not registering as an alien.

Doc is sentenced to stay in prison for the duration of the war, and Peekay regularly visits him in prison. The kommandant (commander) of the prison, a Boer who greatly admires German culture, gives Doc preferential treatment and allows him to keep a cactus garden in the courtyard.

The kommandant hears of Peekay's boxing aspiration, and arranges him to be taught by Lieutenant Smit, the Prison's Head boxing instructor. However, it is when a Coloured man, Geel Piet (Afrikaans for "Yellow Peter") impresses the Lieutenant with his encyclopedic knowledge of boxing that Peekay's boxing really begins to shine. Geel Piet becomes a close friend of Peekay's, and transforms him into an astounding boxer.

Peekay, who is now 10, feels compassion and sympathy for the appallingly treated black prisoners, and helps Geel Piet organise an intricate black market scheme, smuggling tobacco and letters from family members into the prison. As a result, many of the prisoners start calling Peekay Onoshobishobi Ingelosi, the Tadpole Angel.

Peekay also helps arrange a concert for Doc in the prison, and convinces the commandant to allow singing from the black prisoners, too. On the night of the concert, Peekay notices that Geel Piet has not shown up, and goes to find him. He can not find him so he goes back to the concert, afterwards, he finds Geel Piet's bloody body lying in the gymnasium. A white warder, Borman, sadistically bludgeoned him to death with his baton.

After the end of the war, Doc is freed and Peekay continues to develop his intellect. With the help of Mrs. Boxall, Ms. Bornstein (his Jewish schoolteacher) and Doc, he acquires a great knowledge of cacti, chess, literature and music. He wins the East Transvaal under-twelves title and wins a scholarship to the prestigious Prince of Wales School in Johannesburg.

At the school, Peekay quickly makes friends with Hymie Levy (called Morrie Levy in the American publication of the novel), the son of a Jewish millionaire. The calculating Levy combines his financial skill with Peekay's boxing skill to devise numerous "scams" that make them both rich.

Reforming the pathetic school boxing team, they earn enough money to afford lessons for Peekay from South Africa's best boxing instructor, Solly Goldman. Though he excels at rugby union, boxing and academic pursuits, even becoming one of the headmaster's personal favourites, Peekay does not win the Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford that he hoped for.

Returning to Barberton after his final year at the Prince of Wales School, Peekay goes on one last expedition with Doc. They find a cave, which Doc dubs the "Crystal Cave of Africa". Doc lies down on a large pillar, and speaks about his impending death. He imagines how one could lay down on the crystal when they die, and after thousands of years become part of the cave. Peekay gets frightened, tells Doc that he is speaking nonsense and urges him to come out of the cave. Inside, however, he knows that Doc is growing old and must pass on soon. Doc forces him to promise not to tell anyone.

When Doc disappears without trace several days afterwards, Peekay knows exactly where he is, and, knowing what Doc would have wanted, decides not to betray his position to the search and rescue party. He goes back to the Crystal Cave a week later, and finds a goodbye note from Doc attached to a pocket knife hidden near the mouth of the cave, he also finds Doc's pocket watch. He can finally mourn Doc (who had become a very powerful father figure) his way. (Doc went back to his home in Germany in the film.)

At the end of his school career, Peekay decides to make some money by travelling to Northern Rhodesia (modern day Zambia) to work as a copper miner. Getting an extremely dangerous (but high paying) job as a "grizzly man", working on large machines that process the copper, Peekay builds up his body so that he may become better at boxing.

He forms a close friendship with a towering Russian named Rasputin. Rasputin, who speaks little English, eventually sacrifices his own life to save Peekay's during a mining disaster.

Before leaving Northern Rhodesia for good, Peekay goes to the bar to organise a raffle in recognition of Rasputin, to see who will get the remainder of his whiskey. However, just before he leaves, a diamond driller with a powder headache (caused by exposure to high quantities of explosives) enters the bar in a state of insanity. Peekay finds out that this person is Jaapie Botha, his unseen partner above the grizzly. Botha attacks Peekay, and in doing so, reveals his swastika tattoo. Botha is none other than The Judge, who tortured Peekay during his childhood. Using techniques Geel Piet taught him back in Barberton prison, Peekay easily, but savagely, beats his tormenter. He takes the knife that Doc gave him and carves "P.K." over the tattoo, and a crude Union Flag above the swastika tattoo on The Judge's arm.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

It has been adapted into a 1992 film (starring Stephen Dorff, Morgan Freeman, and Armin Mueller-Stahl, John Gielgud, Daniel Craig, Lance Jargonson, Fay Masterton, and Jack Rinehart) the plot of which diverges significantly from that of the book. In the movie, Peekay develops a relationship with a young Afrikaner girl, who helps him to teach English to poor Africans. Also, in the movie Doc went back to his home in Germany, but in the book he dies.

Children's adaptation

The Power of One has been adapted into a version for younger readers, ISBN 0141304898. The Young Reader's Edition, which stops about half way through the adult version, omits several explicit scenes and uses a simpler vocabulary. That edition was written after Bryce Courtney received streams of letters from school teachers begging him to write a version suitable for primary school children.

Sequel

Bryce Courtney wrote a sequel to The Power of One in 1991 called Tandia. The novel continues Peekay's story while he studies at Oxford and later practices law in Johannesburg, South Africa. His quest to become Welterweight Champion of the World is also continued and new characters are introduced to give the reader a different perspective of Peekay. Tandia is written in the third person while The Power of One is written in the first person.

References in popular culture

  • Sonata Arctica lead singer Tony Kakko wrote a song with the same name, and says that The Power of One is one of his favorite books. The song lyrics refer to racism and the idea that everyone is born equal.
  • Kansas State football head coach Ron Prince used the Book's title as the slogan for his 2007 Wildcat Football team. It was inspired from the book. Prince is an avid reader. It carries a dual meaning, the Kansas State football team developed a close relationship with the 28th Infantry "Black Lions" of the First Infantry Division. They have had several training events with each other and carried a shirt with the slogan on the back of it with the 1st ID patch in the back ground of it.

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